Archive for July 15, 2007

TIPAIMUKH DAM: THE STORY SO FAR

Thangkhanlal Ngaihte

After much delay, the foundation stone for the 1500-MW Tipaimukh Multipurpose Hydel Project was finally laid by union power minister Sushil Kumar Shinde at the project site near Tipaimukh in Manipur on December 16, 2006. The function was attended by union heavy industries minister Santosh Mohan Dev, union MoS in the PMO, Prithviraj Chauhan, Manipur chief minister O. Ibobi Singh and a host of high dignitaries. With this act, the union government signaled that it is determined to push ahead with the project, however strong and vocal opposition to the ambitious scheme is.

And strong and vocal the opposition really is. On the day, much of Manipur was shut down due to a bandh called in protest against the Project. As the ministerial team reached Thangal village in Tamenglong district after a public meeting at Parbung, bandh supporters torched government offices and destroy public utilities at the Tamenglong district headquarters. It was the same thing on December 2, 2006 when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced during a visit to Manipur that his government is committed to the project.

The idea of a dam over the Barak river was mooted from as early as 1954, but the detailed project report for construction of the Dam was submitted only in 1984. The twin major objectives were electricity generation and flood control. In 1995, Rishang Keishing, the then chief minister of Manipur voiced opposition to the project. Three years later, in 1998, the Manipur assembly passed a resolution opposing the project. In the meanwhile, a wide coalition of social and civil organizations has formed, especially in Manipur to oppose the project. The Action Committee against Tipaimukh Project (ACTIP) is a forum of as many as 29 NGOs, most of which are based in Meitei and Naga areas. The ACTIP have been carrying out vocal and high profile agitations against the dam, shutting down the state at regular intervals. Outer Manipur MP Mani Cheranemai had spoken in the Parliament against the dam. Some powerful Meitei militant groups also are said to be opposed to the project.

Opposition to the dam has also come from across the international border. Bangladesh have consistently voiced concern over the proposed dam. The deltaic country, through which the river Barak pass before it enters the Bay of Bengal, is afraid that the project will rob it of its share of water in its lower reaches. Negotiations are presently on between India and Bangladesh to arrive at an amicable settlement.

Apart from the street protests, there have been numerous commentaries by supposedly well-informed people who railed and inveighed against this dam. They raise objections to the project, citing reasons ranging from the seismic factor (there were at least two earthquakes exceeding 7 degree in the Richter scale in the last 150 years within a 100 km. Radius of Tipaimukh, they told us); threats to the flora and fauna and endangered species like pythons, gibbons, herbal and medicinal plants etc in the would-be submerged area; threat to the culture, language and tribal land rights; and of course, submergence of as many as 90 villages within a 311 square kilometer circle.

Despite all these, the central government has pressed on, regardless. In 1999, the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO) was entrusted to execute the project. In 2001, while Manipur was under President’s rule, the state allegedly gave approval of the project to the Centre. In 2003, the Public Investment Board and Central Electricity Authority cleared the project with an estimated cost of Rs. 5,163.86 crore–a steep rise from 1078 crore projected in 1984 (the latest estimate, as in November 2005 was Rs. 5855.83 crores). In November 2005, NEEPCO floated global tenders for the project and in July 2006, the pre-bid qualification of the Tender for the first phase was opened. With the foundation stone laid, the ball is now set rolling.

So, how should we really make of this project? Will it really become a fountain of prosperity for the region as the government said it would or a symbol of dashed hopes like the much smaller Khuga Dam in Churachandpur has become?

The main dam is proposed to be built 500 metres downstream from the confluence of the Barak (locally called Tuiluang ) and Tuivai rivers at Tipaimukh close to Manipur-Mizoram border. Most of the submerged area will be in Manipur–in areas inhabited mainly by the Zeliangrong and Hmar tribes.

While various Naga and Meitei organizations have been quite vocal in their opposition to the dam, the Hmar people who occupies the dam site itself, have been maintaining a low profile so far. A source close to Hmar Inpui, the apex body of the Hmar tribe, explains: ‘The Hmar people are generally in favour of the Dam. We believe it will bring the much-needed development to the region, which is still in the pre-modern stage. If Hmar organizations did not speak up loudly now, it probably is due to threats from various quarters to those who support the dam and also that they want to project a coordinated response to the issue’. The source also alleged that the high-profile street protests are orchestrated by busybodies who do not represent the affected people, and did not know the ground situation and topography of the affected area.

True, the area may well be the most underdeveloped part of the northeast. There are no proper motorable roads, no electricity and poverty is acute. The area, at least the Manipur side, is rugged and unproductive from agriculture point of view. While large projects have their demerits and the government’s record in terms of providing rehabilitations and resettlement to the affected people very poor, one enduring weakness of the opposition seems to be that it just does not have an alternative, viable model of development for these blighted regions.

The government has touted the project as the panacea for the region’s ills. Union minister Santosh Mohan Dev called December 16, the date in which the project’s foundations were laid, a red letter day for the region. NEEPCO claimed that the ‘power generated will bridge the demand-supply gap for the states of Manipur and other NER states’. While Manipur would get free power at the rate of 5% for the first five years (equivalent to Rs 55 crore per year) which will further jump to 10% for the next 10 years and further to 15% for the next 20 years, Mizoram would get 1% of the power generated throughout the project’s existence. It estimated that the benefits accruing to the region because of this dam will be around Rs. 300 crore per year. However, it is sobering to realize that the government has been saying these same nice things for all its major projects, much of which never came into reality.

As of now, the government is pressing ahead. But there are numerous stumbling blocks ahead. On February 22, 2007, the Environmental Impact Assessment Committee–an expert appraisal committee for river valley and hydroelectric projects under the Ministry of Environment and Forests deferred clearance to the Dam for the second time. There are the ubiquitous militant groups to contend with. And now that the project has became more of an inter-tribe and inter-community political battlefield and less of a purely development issue, it is difficult to foresee how things will work out. So, while you may support or oppose this project, you can be sure of at least one thing: It’s not going to be completed soon; definitely not in the next ‘87 months’ which is what the government promised.

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